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Daily Dose of Darkness #3: Under a Full Moon (The opening scene of The Letter)


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Anyone know of a site or public domain link where I can view Wyler's "The Letter" online? I was unable to catch it when it aired on TCM, and would really like to watch it before I go into this weeks lessons. Thanks in advance.

It's not in the public domain, unfortunately. I was able to get a copy from iTunes here in Australia.

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I love watching Bette Davis, especially films she made earlier in her career.  I've had The Letter in my collection for some time, but have never found the time to watch it until today.  I was riveted to my seat from the beginning to the end of the movie!  Somehow I knew Bette would die by the hands of the widow.  It was the way she looked at her with steel cold icy eyes.  As if to say, I am not going to let you get away with this!  Great way to spend the afternoon!

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The opening scene of The Letter, with its shocking onscreen killing of Mr. Hammond as Leslie empties the fully-loaded pistol into him without a flinch, is followed by an almost equally shocking scene when Leslie orders the foreman to get the police and tell them that there's been an accident!

 

She is emotionless, as if this is almost a daily occurrence, in my opinion. Perhaps she is in shock. After all, the plantation workers were merely feet away when this happened and watched the scene unfold from the moment Leslie and Mr. Hammond came outside. This was no accident, many of them must be thinking, including the foreman.

 

So, what began as a tranquil evening in the tropics, has turned into a nightmare for everyone, it would seem. Our minds and bodies are fearful as the plot begins to unfold.

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I was absolutely surprised by the opening scene of The Letter when I first saw this movie some years ago. I imagine that a 1940 audience would have been shocked.  The peace of a beautiful moonlit night shattered by a cold, deliberate killing.   Despite knowing many people were close at hand and that they would have been alerted by the first shot, she boldly follows the injured man out of the house and calmly empties the gun into his body as he lays on the ground. This is no ordinary woman and if this is a crime of passion she looks quite calm and collected. She takes a life and looks to me as if she is only thinking about herself. She is completely in control as she orders the worker to go for the police and report 'an accident.' Arrogance and entitlement. As the clouds covered the moon I felt that she had brought a darkness to this place. 

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  1. the moon and the scanning of the scene is very noir

 

animals reacting to the shot

 

we see first deligency in her face as she is shooting, but then a look of maybe remorse she is detaching, as soon as she gets confronted about it she is diligent cool calm and collected again and tells the men what they must do

 

everyone else's general reaction to the shot from the animals, to the way the men act in their sleeping quarters to how they aproach the body is very noire

 

the moon offers a very noir-esque change in lighting

 

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Although the opening scene to The Letter is very Noir, I think we're still looking at a sequence that has more influence from, and a stronger tie to German Expressionism than Noir. This is certainly a very strong bridge from one to the other, but for me the rest of the film lacks too many of other required elements to actually classify it as a Noir film.

 

That being said, the combination of the music and the visuals of the moon and the clouds make a terrifically moody setting.

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The change of mood shifts very quickly from resting on a hot summer night to shock and unrest as shots ring out. As the moon comes out from under the clouds to shine on Bette Davis' character and the crime she has just committed, you can see her snap out a trance and appear to be remorseful. The moon is very noir and the sounds of the workers and the dogs barking is also very noir.

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How many times did we see the moon in that first scene?  Watching the shots of the full moon kind of remind me of the belief that people are influenced by the moon.  Hospitals report more babies are born and that people are crazier  when there's a full moon.  

Could there be a tie to Bette Davis' temporary lapse of sanity be influenced by the full moon?  She is for sure a narcissistic almost sociopathic character with a flare for drama and shallow remorse. 

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The opening to William Wyler’s, “The Letter” is a quick, economical scene that establishes, the country, the time of day, the rubber plantation, its workers and most importantly, the inciting incident.  Some really nice touches are the moon going behind the cloud and then re-emerging, shedding light on the murder, which seems to terrify Bette Davis.  Secondly, we see that Bette Davis is either unhinged from reality or is a complete liar when she utters, “Tell him there’s been an accident and Mr. Hammond is dead.”  Six shots is an accident?  Bette Davis seems to have no concern for any ramifications from the collected workers.  She’s willing to kill and lie about her actions with complete disregard despite the fact everyone knows what she's done.  This opening scene suggests the rest of the film will be structured, at least in part, as a flashback simply to find out what provoked Bette Davis to kill Mr. Hammond.

 

Thanks - Mark

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I actually have seen Film Noir movies without knowing. The opening of the movie is, so peaceful!! all people are minding their own business; suddenly, someone is kill in cold blood without  having second thoughts. It seems to me that in the period of time actresses came to dominate the genre Film Noir.The contrast and similarities between these two women are fatal .One can sense the feeling of superstation how the movie started in full moon and ended with a new moon. 

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What a dramatic opener. And I don't even think the initial gunfire was the most dramatic part about it. Yes, it seemed to shake us, like the workers, from the peaceful atmosphere, but I think what was more disturbing was Davis's expression as she did it - the bags under her eyes, not a hint of emotion, not a word. We can't tell if she's angry or what. Even afterwards, she doesn't give us any hint of sadness or fear.

 

I'm not sure I agree with others who have said that Davis is an "outright liar" when she calls it an accident, because at this point in the film, we don't know what happened. Sure, she shot him point blank six times, but maybe she is referring to the circumstances themselves as an accident. Though, one could also interpret her razor-sharp response as cold and calculating, certainly. But that's what makes it noir: we just don't know. 

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The fact that Bette Davis emptied the gun is significant to me.  She ran through every emotion in less than five minutes.  Hate, fear, relief, shame, reconciliation, guilt, acceptance.  We have to find out what made her kill this man knowing there was really no way to hide the shooting.

 

The bright moon being covered by clouds and then the clouds moving is symbolic of what happens in the movie - truth being covered by lies and then the lies are replaced with the truth.

 

On a totally unrelated side note, I liked the doggies the workers had.

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I think the most surprising thing about this opening is not the initial gun shot nor the ones that follow.  The workers stay put until the shots end, then go to see what has happened.  The woman then issues orders that are followed without question implying that following orders is the way of life and you don't question the boss, even when it is clear she has murdered a man.  The matter-of-fact approach is what, I believe, makes this such a great example of film noir. 

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First film I've seen so far!  But the opening is still as potent, as if I had never seen it.

 

Setting - exotic Singapore.  Background - jungle music.  A romantically bright moon looks down over... sweaty, tired workers settling in for the night while the rubber trees ooze their lethargic drops.  All is lazy.  All is quiet.  But then the mood is cut.  A blast from a gun!  The music stops.  A bird is startled and flies off.  A man stumbles onto a porch.  Enter:  Bette, as only she can. (Gosh, I love her!)  Another shot.  The dogs are alerted, the men are alerted.  Again.  And another.  Another.... Perhaps the man is still by now, but we wouldn't know it, for the camera zooms in on only Bette.  Bette and her eyes, so intent as she moves down the stairs, emptying her gun, each shot like an encouragement in her mind.  Confirmed!  She wants this man dead, and then some!  She appears in a daze, almost emotionless, unaware of her surroundings.  It's only her, the gun, and the man (though, her and the gun may be one-and-the-same in this scene, as the feeling behind the finger (or lack there-of) is almost as penetrating).  Oh, she knows what she's doing... she is aware, certainly, of what she is doing... and I don't think she cares that she is taking a life, but rather only of what must have just happened prior.

 

Dark clouds move across the moon, but only for a moment.  Her crime cannot be hidden, though she may try to cover it up, and that is evident to us as the moon makes its appearance once again, only brighter, it seems.  And this is the climax, at least for me.  THOSE EYES!  The truth of what she has done is about to be brought to full light, unless she is fast on her feet in thinking of a story.

 

The men approach cautiously (the foreman, perhaps, being the most brave in stepping forward?).  He looks shocked to discover the identity of the man lying on the ground.  This isn’t some stranger, some no-good scoundrel or burglar who broke into the house.  This is someone they know and are familiar with.  Notice the hesitant way in which he follows her into the house when she commands it?  He has, perhaps for the first time, been surprised at her actions, suspicious, a little scared that it appears she may be capable of murder, but he obeys because that is expected.

 

An accident, she says, and to go and fetch her husband and the district officer, immediately.  Now he may not buy that, but again, he does it.  And the whole while she stands with her body and face turned away from him (afraid she may give something away if she faced him?).  She’s calm and commanding, however, and the hand that had just been clenched tightly around the gun is now open wide at her side and away from her body.  It is a hand that had just committed murder.  What’s the story?  Watch and see!         

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The way the light changes is significant. When the moon is covered, Bette seems to have given in to her fate for what she has done, but when the moonlight shines once again, it seems to give her the strength to come up with a plan. I had never seen this opening before, now I'm intrigued to watch the rest.

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Lazy atmosphere, people resting, sleeping, snoring, simple siesta time... And suddenly a gunshot! Out of the blue. And another one. Then we see a man trying to leave the house, he's limping, seems wouded. And a woman who follows him and shots several times again. Her face is calm, but full of contempt towards this man. She hates him. The people all around the house are surprised and scared, some stare in disbelief. The music gets dramatic, even the moon hides itself, because of the crime commited, like it doesn't want to see it... The lady looks at the body (high-angle shot and a shadow) and her face says sth like: "Well, you got what you deserved, bastard". And she stares at the moon who decided to expose her. She slowly goes back to the house, the people are coming to see the body. One of the employees recognises Mr. Hammond and the lady (very calm) invites him to the house. And then she asks him to call the authorities and report an accident and then call Mr. Crosbie. 

1st surprise - gunshots, 2nd surprise - a woman shooting, 3rd surprise - she's calm and determined, but we still think that man must have done something terrible, because you can kill a person with one bullet - when you empty a whole magazine into sb he must have really made you angry!

This opening gives everything we need:

1) a huge contrast between the lazy siesta and the murder

2) a cold-hearted murderer - a beautiful woman (probably a femme fatale)

3) a mystery - why did she kill him so brutally 

4) a great work of a camera operator - the shots increase the tension.

 

ps. Bette Davis had so much charisma that she even  told the moon to scram ;)

 

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Catch Up #3:  "Were you surprised by what happens in the opening scene of The Letter?"  Aw, c'mon, it's BETTE!!!  Seriously, yes.  The opening is "business as usual" with the plantation, even for late night.  The reaction shots as the gunshots ring out shattering the silence indicate this is most unusual.  Then we see Bette charging out of the house, firing the gun with an expression belying her appearance and demeanor.  I've seen this movie who knows how many times, including this last time.  I'm probably biased.  I suppose it's "contribution to the film noir style" would be the use of lighting - the moon moving behind the clouds, everybody's reaction, the moon moving out from behind the clouds, everybody's reaction. Light and dark are throughout the movie, right up to the end, when once again the clouds and moon collaborate in murder. It  has a "quiet" feel - the music is soft, most scenes are on the softer, quiet side, everybody speaks in low or soft voices, politely and correctly (very mannered). Despite it's "ferocious" beginning, the story settles down and stays that way until the end. Except for her confession to her husband, that she "still loves the man she killed," Bette keeps a very tight lid on her character's emotions and this beginning shot is the only other exposure of her true feelings.  (This control was due to Wyler's direction.) There is an inevitability to this movie - Bette is not going to get away with murder, and we know it early on. Part of the game is to see how it finally catches up with her.

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The beginning of the letter is a surprise compared to most film noir which is filled with mystery of who can and can't be trusted. The letter goes right out and tells who is bad in the first scene with many witnesses. Not only is the villain revealed to many people but the moon light shining down is also very different the the dark foggy look of most noirs. I think this is to further emphasize the fact that Davis has been seen murdering him so she even gets a spotlight.

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The beginning of the letter is a surprise compared to most film noir which is filled with mystery of who can and can't be trusted. The letter goes right out and tells who is bad in the first scene with many witnesses. Not only is the villain revealed to many people but the moon light shining down is also very different the the dark foggy look of most noirs. I think this is to further emphasize the fact that Davis has been seen murdering him so she even gets a spotlight.

 

Sorry,  but I don't agree we,  the audience, knows that Davis is murdering him.  Instead all we know from the initial scene is that she killed him.   It isn't until her frank discussion with her lawyer and the exposure of the letter that we know she has lied and committed murder.  

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I was completely surprised by this opening, but not by the murder.  Plenty of films start with someone being offed. The difference here is that it isn't a whodunit, it's a whydunit.  Maybe the workers only heard what went on, but we saw exactly who killed this man.  We saw that she did it with intent and hatred.  What pulls me in (and over to Netflix to add The Letter to my queue), is that I need to know the motivation behind this heinous act.  

 

That and I'm a sucker for a dangerous lady.  ;)

Excellent distinction: a whydunnit vs. a whodunnit! 

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The beginning of the letter is a surprise compared to most film noir which is filled with mystery of who can and can't be trusted. The letter goes right out and tells who is bad in the first scene with many witnesses. Not only is the villain revealed to many people but the moon light shining down is also very different the the dark foggy look of most noirs. I think this is to further emphasize the fact that Davis has been seen murdering him so she even gets a spotlight.

I like your point about the moonlight.  The clarity in the bright light reveals from the start who the culprit is.  However, the moon keeps appearing/disappearing from behind the clouds, just as our thoughts as to the "why" of this crime keep getting cloudy and muddled over the course of the film.

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Sorry,  but I don't agree we,  the audience, knows that Davis is murdering him.  Instead all we know from the initial scene is that she killed him.   It isn't until her frank discussion with her lawyer and the exposure of the letter that we know she has lied and committed murder.  

I see your point.  True, the story she gives us in the beginning leaves her in the clear.  And I'll admit, there were moments when I thought, "well, maybe there's a twist and she's not guilty".  Still, by the way she kills the man and the fact that we assume she is the equivalent of a "femme fatale" in this unique noir (and frankly, the fact that it's Bette Davis) points us in the direction that this is most decidedly murder.

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Having just watched The Letter, I feel like the opening scene(s) do drop hints as to Leslie Crosbie's guilt/innocence.  There's a lot of subtlety in Bette Davis' performance that you can pick up on if you're paying attention--the way she looks at the body, for example, and the multiple references throughout the film to how amazing it is that she can always remember the same details in the same way.

 

I think the first time I watched the movie it was more surprising when we reached the end and she confessed, but I remember the surprise came more from the fact that Leslie admitted guilt on her own and wasn't forced out into the open.

 

Maybe some of my ability to pick up on those hints and clues comes from my years and years of reading mystery novels and playing mystery games and basically being a giant mystery nerd, but to me the signals were there for the audience to pick up on from the very beginning.

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